Which is Better? Argentina vs. Chile for expat investors

Our Blog is about seven countries behind our actual travels. But I felt like putting in a current post. Michel & I have been looking at South America as potential expat investors. There are several obvious advantages to Canada. One being that your investment dollar goes further!

Another being that we are members of an investment group which has asked us to provide them our feedback. So we are posting it here.

You asked me for my assessment of Chile vs. Argentina for investment purposes. Here is my opinion. Keep in mind that this opinion is solely based on my observations as a tourist who doesn’t speak any Spanish. Additionally, I was part of a backpacking tour group nearly the entire time that I was in these two countries.

I am aware that Douglas Casey , (a free market economist/investor whom we follow) is busy touting Argentina as the place to invest. And I think his opinion is valid – for those who are ultra rich or at least have a very high net worth. For people of more modest means – those that I would classify as middle class or less, I would say that Chile would be the superior place to start a business.

Chile has less graft and better infrastructure. The border crossings were extremely efficient. The police check-points were not entitled to root through your belongings and throw your stuff on the ground. Nor did they walk around with paper cups and demand tips for doing it. They used scanners and sniffer dogs to look for contraband.

A small portion of a much larger sheep herd

You can obviously export meat at a profit. I saw stunning sheep and cattle herds numbering in the hundreds of thousands of animals – and acres of vineyards – with wine for export. The population is very cosmopolitan. From what I could tell it was extremely easy to get work and get into Chile as an expat and start a business.

In Argentina, it also appears to be fairly easy to get into the country and get work. And their population is also cosmopolitan. However the infrastructure is not as well developed, and in
many cases they are riding on previous infrastructure investment – but it is decaying and needs updating.

At a contractual level, Chileans seem to put more effort into honoring the four corners of an agreement. In Argentina, it seems relatively common to mostly meet the agreed contract. If a reasonable attempt is made to fulfill a contract, but they can’t meet it fully; oh well. They don’t mind skipping the details. They also seem more willing to engage in ‘puffery’ when describing the contents of a contract which can convey raised expectations – especially to a foreigner who expects the descriptions to be fulfilled.

Both countries seem to have a problem with inefficient, slow service levels (as compared to international standards). When I timed various things – it seemed to take between 30% and 100% longer to deliver an identical service as compared to Canada where I reside.

For instance to get my hair cut & dyed in Canada – it takes about an hour. In Chile – it took 2.5 hours. It takes roughly 2 times longer to complete a restaurant meal. They take much longer to recognize your arrival, deliver a menu, take your order and then give you the bill -even if you are the only customer. Observationally in the kitchen, the work flow is very poorly laid out so that various staff movements criss-cross and impede efficient food production. (I have worked extensively in food production).

Stores in general have excessive staffing levels. Often the staff are not deployed efficiently. And staff, both in stores and on construction sites often elect to complete their tasks in an inefficient manner. They have convoluted theft control methods that need modernizing. These are weaknesses that an expat could exploit.

In both countries, I noticed that for some reason, businesses often don’t properly maintain their business equipment. It isn’t just tourist rental equipment that appeared under-repaired. I noticed buses driven in a dangerous manner (it is acceptable to drive them drunk) as well as poorly repaired. But these problems were worse in Argentina.

I am not sure why basic equipment maintenance appears to be ignored. As poor equipment affects productivity and reputation – information which can be efficiently spread on the internet to your future customers. Additionally with all the extra staff everyone seems to have, why not put them to work fixing it?

Both countries are not as wired and into the internet as is the international norm. Download speeds seem universally slow – which could be a handicap when competing and accessing information internationally.

Chile has a problem in its northern areas with indigenous land claims which can negatively affect current title holders. I don’t know about Argentina. Both countries have water distribution and access problems.

While traveling around in Chile and Argentina, I noticed that both countries have limited market breadth in nearly every type of commodity sold in stores. For example there were far more limited types of toothpastes available to pick from – maybe 3 – 4 choices at most. In North America it is common to find several competing brands, each brand with a range of sub-choices – tooth whitening, sensitive teeth, baby toothpaste, different flavors. This is true for every product I examined. Ear plugs. Headphones. TVs. Food in the grocery stores. And surprisingly, competing stores seemed to carry the same identical brand. Going to more stores didn’t increase your range of choices. If store X had 2 toasters to choose from – all the other stores offered the exact same two toasters. Or maybe just one of the toasters. You can’t find them in made in different materials or colors, or 4 holes vs 2, or manufactured by different companies. The whole town sells the same two toasters.

The only items that appeared to have any great breadth of choice were mayonnaise and pasta.

These were possibilities I thought an expat could exploit. Specialty stores in a narrow range of product, but a wide range of variations within the genre. It appears to be totally unheard of in both of these countries.

I was told that there is a fairly high level of arbitrary hiring discrimination in Chile. It is based on your last name (immigrant heritage) and your Santiago address. In Argentina it is based on your sex. There might be other local hiring discrimination preferences, but these were specifically described to me. This means that in both countries there are a group of easily identifiable, under-employed people that a discriminating expat could probably advantageously hire.

Argentina has a currency problem. It is caused by a 25% annual inflation rate that the government refuses to recognize. It can be very difficult to make change as there are often bill shortages. Small money is like gold. So the business owner often has to round up in the customer’s favor. Argentina’s presses can’t print enough money. They have to ship it in from Brazilian presses.

It is bad enough that the cash machines can be stripped of cash for days at a time. This can force people to line up hundreds deep to try and just to get cash to spend – which in turn forces the banks to put limits on how much you can withdraw. And Argentina especially is not a ‘cashless’ society. A huge time waster. The rounding-up of change during a purchase due to lack of small bills causes an ongoing small bleed to the top line.

Argentina seems to have random fuel shortages caused by the government’s ongoing efforts to manipulate price.

Both countries have a higher demographic of young people compared to Canada. The demographic difference is very visible. I also noticed that it is very acceptable for lot of staff time to be eaten up by a lot of flirting between both themselves and customers. It is also acceptable for young mothers to bring their children to the work site. I don’t know if this is a cultural thing, or if it is a result of the universally young demographic – but it sucks up a lot of potential production time from the business.

In Chile I discovered that a lot of young expats are coming from Europe to work for free, or nearly so for many types of businesses. The one nationality I didn’t see volunteering were Australians. They can still get good jobs at home.

These expats are volunteering to work in the tourist industry, on government projects such as museums, childcare and research. And they are universally well-educated. They all had at least one advanced degree. And usually multilingual. These ambitious young people have left their countries because of stunningly high unemployment rates often in the 25% range, and lack of opportunity. They are willing to work for very close to free – often for six months to a year for only room & board just to get experience and opportunity.

Businessmen – post your opportunity experience on the net – and see what happens.

Both countries have a garbage disposal problem – but it is much worse in Argentina. Garbage, particularly plastic & paper is flying everywhere on sidewalks, roadsides and even cultivated farmland and national forests. It looks like you can dump your garbage anywhere on anyones property with impunity. This could negatively impact certain types of businesses such as a tourist business; and it can cause extra expense if you have to get rid of someone elses trash from your property.

Water is drinkable from the tap in major cities. A plus I wasn’t expecting.

Argentina seems to have a fairly high level of publicly accepted graft – and at different levels.

For example, when traveling on a public bus (semi-cama) it was acceptable for the people who put your baggage under the bus to demand a “tip” for putting it there. Officially, luggage transport is free. But in reality, you must give the bus driver a cash payment.

This might seem like a small detail, but employees demanding graft openly at an industry-wide level represents a significant cash leak. It must be very difficult to stop, otherwise I assume that the bus companies would have stopped it, if nothing else but to secure this revenue stream for themselves.

When passing through the Bolivian border into Argentina, it was a stunning rigamaroll. It took hours. Hundreds of people were lining up to get at a two person till to get their passport stamped. It was breathtakingly hot. There was no shelter. People were not queuing politely, but were basically shoving and butting into the front of the line. If you were old or handicapped I think you would have been screwed. It would have been very hard to cross. The immigration authorities must be aware of this problem. Something as simple as handing out numbers, increasing the number of open tills would have resolved much of this problem – but nothing was done. According to my tour guide, it is always this way.

While we were standing in line (4 hours – we were told to be prepared for as long as 7 hours), we had the opportunity to note that there was a huge human relay taking place beside us on the other side of the building. Hundreds of people, both men and women – mostly indigenous, were carrying heavy bundles of items on their backs from Argentina into Bolivia. The flow mostly went one way, so I am not sure if that had to do with current traffic flow needs or if it had to do with the different countries import/export regulations. However, the people were carrying at a trot (obviously they were being paid a piece rate because no one was walking) as much as they could carry wrapped up in a blanket. Some of them were certainly on sub-contract because they had matching carry blankets. They were transporting giant stacks of beer & pop bottles, 100 lb bags of flour, cartons of produce and every conceivable consumable.

When I asked, I was told that the 18 wheel trucks couldn’t cross the line. So they were running back and forth – between ½ km to 1 km – between two trucks. I was told that this was the “black market” border. Where products were crossed without official tariff, but of course you had to pay off the guards and pay labour.

This also means that as a business owner you are dealing with and competing with two local market prices of a fairly large range of identical products. The black market stuff and the official stuff. You’d also have to figure out how to ‘sanitize’ black market purchases (if necessary, but I don’t know).

Additionally, I discovered that commercial vehicles need to have their own passports – just like a human. And entrance can be easily denied by a capricious official.

For instance, the bus I was traveling on was actually a modified truck. In the paperwork to cross the border, you have to identify you vehicle as a bus, truck, motorcycle from among several other choices. The guide chose to tick truck.

The official decided that was the wrong choice, so refused to admit the truck. So the tour group ended up having to transfer to a public bus – while the truck stayed behind several more days before crossing the border and filling many more forms because of that blunder. I said to the guide “Well at least you know what box to tick next time.” He laughed. He said “I have crossed many times. And I have ticked all of the boxes at one time or other. It just depends on what the border guard decides it is that day. It can even be different things on the same day! I have even shown them old paperwork to show them a previously acceptable ‘tick’ selection, but if they have decided that it is a bus not a truck – too bad. I have even left it blank so they can tell me which box to tick, because really, I don’t care what they want to call it – but that alone can offend them”

So Argentina doesn’t make it easy to get stuff into or out of the country. It is a time consuming event. It is obviously very expensive to move goods across the border – if it is cheaper to hire people to carry thousands of pounds of stuff BY HAND a fair distance and repack a separately organized vehicle plus pay off the right people. You have to keep this in mind when you are starting a company that has in any way any ambitions of either importing or exporting.

This is not the only hindrance to transporting goods that I noted. While traveling within Argentina by public bus around Christmas the buses had to pass through various police check-points on the road. They were looking for contraband. The buses were stopped quite frequently. My guide told me that the vehicle searches were increased at Christmas because the police guards, who didn’t make much money, used Christmas as an opportunity to increase their unofficial income because more was being transported at that time of year.

A search involves taking all of your belongings out of the bus. All of it. Then you have to quickly grab your baggage while is being hauled out of the baggage compartment under the bus (very vulnerable to theft by the surrounding gawkers as well as the guards themselves. The guide warned us not to leave any electronic device in our backpacks including cords as they had a tendency to disappear.) The guards lined us up at two tables – men in one queue and women in the other. Then the luggage was ripped apart.

The foreign tourist luggage only got symbolic pat.

But the locals got treated shockingly. The guard would take a giant plastic plaid carry bag, up end it on the table. Gifts, clothes, shoes – everything fell out. Some on the table, some to the floor. Then the guard would swirl it quickly around for a look. Anything wrapped, anything of value was casually knocked to the floor, and kicked into his office. When he had sorted the wheat from the chaff, with one swipe of his hand, he hurled remaining stuff from the table to the floor on the opposite side. The person having their luggage searched had to quickly grab the bag, and frantically restuff it before the next guys belongings were swiped off the table and mixed into his. Wow. Merry Christmas.

I saw a stack of about 20 monopoly games confiscated. Stuff wrapped in newspapers for protection – who knows what it was? The guard never opened it to look – but it better not have been electronic or glass for it would have been smashed as it received the tradition toss to the floor followed by a kick. A lady transporting a huge bag of cocoa leaves. All this stuff had been bought in Bolivia by little back-yard entrepreneurs for selling at the local Saturday markets. Because stuff is much cheaper in Bolivia.

And guess what? It all got back on the bus. All the stuff that I took note of, eventually returned to the bus.

So this tells me that it is hard to move supplies around the country. And with all those searches at different parts of the route, it looks like there might be quite a few little unofficial fiefdoms you have to negotiate with. Not good for a little business man.

I noticed something else. While in Buenos Aires, some of my fellow travelers decided to go to a soccer match. It turns out that if you want to park in the street, anywhere near the stadium, you had to pay the local street mafia 30 pesos. This business is not officially sanctioned by anyone. Street parking is free. But there are huge turf wars over the parking business. In fact, 3 mafia people were shot and taken to hospital before the game started.

These parking mafias are: tolerated by the public and police (who are paid off). I wonder how many other little surprise mafias are equally tolerated?

Argentina is known for its beef. And the beef is wonderful, organic and grass fed. There is a huge market for it. There is a food shortage in the world. Because of increasing disposable incomes in many parts of the world, there is an increasing demand for high end food – like beef.

Casey is busy buying up empty gaucho ranch land for cheap. Why is that land cheap? And why isn’t it being used to produce beef? The labor and the land is certainly cheaper than Australia which is a major world exporter – what is going on? And why aren’t others flocking in to follow his example?

The potential answer turned up on a walking tour that I took with a local guide in Buenos Aires. The gauchos aren’t raising beef for export because of the Argentine beef export tax.

So the government has effectively killed one of its major industries. I assume that it had a political reason for killing a major source of revenue. What that might be I don’t know. But there were possible hints in the explanation that my local city tour guide gave me while giving me the walking tour of Buenos Aires.

“There is very little beef export now – because the gauchos don’t want to give the government its share. The gaucho land owners are extremely rich. They don’t need all that money.”

This is what I extracted from this statement: The rich gauchos are not politically aligned with the current government so it was necessary to clip their wings by clipping their income. The government has put some kind of self-rightous political marketing spin on it – the public has bought the idea that patriotic gauchos should be OK with an export tax. Besides, the gaucho families have tons of land and money and deserve to pay a bit more.

Not any more. Not if Casey is buying the family ranch for a song.

The guide said something else interesting: “It is not good to be visibly rich. If you have money, it is very, very smart not to show it off.” And she went on to say something further. “See that giant palace? It is owned by the McGregor Family. The couple is very old. They have signed a paper to give it to the government when they have passed.”

“Did the government buy it?”

“No. The McGregors are very rich. They just felt like giving it to the government.”

That might be true. But in my experience, even the very rich don’t generally get the urge to give away multi-million dollar family heritage homes that have been in the family for generations to the government without a reason. What about their kids or their own personal charity causes? I think there was more to that story………..so you have to consider the possibility of government land expropriation – and how prevalent it might be.

And beef isn’t the only export product that has been taxed into oblivion. Textile exports have been obliterated too.

So here is what I think. If you are very, very rich – and you are patient enough to wait for political change, you will do very well in Argentina. To do well at a business, you will need a lot of money. Especially if you are a foreigner.

As a foreigner arriving in Argentina – besides the official hoops you would expect to jump, you also face a wall of gray rules and expenses. It is very hard to make a business plan based on gray.

Being a foreigner you don’t know the going rate or forms of graft. You don’t have the local connections and friends either. So you are extra vulnerable to exploitation. You could easily lose your grubstake. I’ll bet the locals would consider you (a rich! foreigner) a goose waiting to be plucked.

Land ownership can be easily subverted. If someone decides to squat on your acreage or sneak into the house that you’ve bought while you are away – you very well might find it impossible to get rid of them. Squatters have a lot of rights. I do know that I saw a beautiful high rise building – with stunning antique stonework, right in the downtown core of Buenos Aires – filled to the brim and ruined by squatters. I was told that according to the law it would take THIRTY years to get rid of them and reclaim this property.

I don’t know how long it takes before squatters rights are triggered over the owners, however for a traveling expat – this could be a problem.

And if you are wealthy enough to start a business, you might not get much local sympathy because of the negatively branded “wealth factor” that the government has successfully marketed to the public. In fact you might be extra targeted for gray fees and squatters with rights because of your presumed ignorance.

If you are ultra-rich, like Casey, you can probably circumnavigate these problems. He is wealthy and well-connected enough that I presume that the local Argentinians would be actively vying to curry favor with him. So he wouldn’t be subject to as much risk as a little guy and quite possibly he can skip large chunks of gray tariffs just because he could trade on his international connections and status.

Plus he has so much money that if that if something were to go wrong, it wouldn’t break him.

I think if you are rich enough, you could get very, very rich in this country. People are less willing to demand graft from people of power – so you would get that competitive advantage right off the hoop. I think you get more respect, and can build your connections far more quickly. If you are just average – I think you risk getting fleeced.

I think Casey will be successful with his gaucho ranch purchases, because he has the wealth to wait out this political freeze on exporting. The time will come, eventually when Argentina will again be known for its beef – and Casey will be sitting in the sweet spot. There are elections due here very soon – and the president’s husband (the old guard who was apparently making all the decisions through his figurehead wife) has just died. Who knows? It might be just around the corner.

But for the little guy, you have to be willing to risk your capital – that you can financially wait out the export freeze – and that you can survive the gray tariffs – if you want to do business in Argentina.

Chile is a better land of opportunity for the little businessman.

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Hiking the hills of Whitehorse

There are a maze of trails around Whitehorse that turn into cross country ski tracks in winter. There are so many side branches and cross trails, that we have to bring a map for orienteering purposes. Even with the map, at certain points, we are unsure of where we are.

Whitehorse is surrounded by prehistoric desert dunes and hidden lakes. Rolling hills and and soapberry bushes abound!

Soapberry season is in full swing, so we made sure to sample some while keeping a sharp lookout for bears. Soap berries taste sour with some tiny blackberry-like seeds inside. They are very refreshing, but sour and seedy to eat. While we are hiking we run into a First Nations woman who is picking them to make soap berry ice cream. This is a native delicacy.

The recipe is: berries, sugar with a touch of water and drop of oil. Whisk until foamy. There are only two Youtube videos showing how to make the soap berry ice cream – this is the best one – mmm! mmm!

(They don’t get the recipe portions quite right, but you’ll get the idea!)

Here are the views that you get along various parts of the trails:

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Fish Lake Trail hike

Fish Lake trail, Yukon

Fish Lake trail, Yukon looking down the trail.

(located at Mile 889.4 Alaska Hwy) Our Westfalia is a dot, parked at the end of the road that you can see on the right hand side of the lake (not Fish Lake).

This is a pretty easy trail because you drive most of the elevation before you start the walk. The trail itself has an elevation gain of 352 m.

The Fish Lake trail hike is a local secret. Although the trail braids a bit they all eventually rejoin the main path. You can see that it is used by horseback riders because of all the hoof prints on the track. Once at the top you get a view of the Bonneville Lakes area.

At the top of the trail we forayed off onto the tundra.

Walking on tundra is like walking on the deepest, softest plushest carpet. The tundra is at least a foot deep and springy as you step on it. It makes it really easy to scale fairly steep side hills because the tundra helps your shoes stick in place.

It is stunningly beautiful.

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Gold mining history

Dawson City from the Midnight Dome

Dawson City from the Midnight Dome

Overlooking Dawson City is the Midnight Dome. It has an elevation of 82911 feet and is only 5 miles from town. It’s famous around Yukon for the Summer Solstice parties in June. Unfortunately we’ve just missed the party, but there the big Dawson City Music Festival in town. We can hear bits of freebie music floating up on the air as we enjoy the view.

In town is a bustle of activity. Colorful tents are being hammered into the ground. Kids are staking out the parking lots with their flower-painted buses and throwing up makeshift tarps. People have canoed, biked and driven in from all over to attend. Tickets are at a premium; and if you want to go to hear the locally-grown Yukon music, its a three-day pass – or nothing.

Partial passes, or one day passes don’t exist.

Michel & I don’t have time for a three day extravaganza at the festival. Our goal is to head up the Dempster Highway; and we are on a limited time budget because I have to be back in civilization by a certain time to get the cast cut off my arm. (Yay! Yay! Yay! :)) I can hardly wait to get rid of the darn thing!)

Although Dawson City is currently very small, it’s mining history had a huge impact on the surrounding environment. It is totally surrounded by the wide swaths of gravel tailings from the placer miners. The tailings are perfectly preserved. The placer mining technique which strips all the soil from the gravel and the sub-arctic climate means that it looks pretty well identical to what it would have been when the Klondikers were here. There has been virtually no flora recovery in the tailings area. If you look at the photo, you can see the big gravel scars around the town from the placer mining.

Michel operating a sluice box

Michel operating a sluice box

In town, the Dawson City Museum houses the largest and most important collection in the Yukon. They host various interactive displays. Michel got to try his hand at sluicing, which was the original way to separate the gold from the gravel. They use real placer gravel to do the demo, and Michel actually got a few flakes of gold.

You start by rocking the sluice box (which doesn’t need running creek water to operate – only a few gallons in the sluice box which you keep reusing all day – that way you can placer mine anywhere – even when there is no creek!) and you end up by taking the residual gravel and panning it down to your gold flakes!

You can see some shots of the old historical mining stuff here:

Machine from Dawson

From here we went to see the great Klondike innovation: the Dredge.

Dredge Number 4 is a monstrous thing.

In was constructed in place on the gold claim and then a giant basin was dug out underneath then filled with water. The dredge floated in a movable sink. The dredge was essentially a high powered heated water hose combined with giant conveyer belt shovel that chomped through the ground at high speed. The hot water was used to melt the ground in front of the dredge, and the conveyer belt shovel dropped the freshly unfrozen gravel into it’s internal high-tech placer shaker machine; extracted the gold bits then shot the residue gravel out the back in a spray. It’s floating basin essentially moved the giant dredge forward as it dug. The dredge, which is the size of a decent sized apartment block, only took a few men to run. Now the gold poured into town.

The tour guide used to be a camp cook for some of the local placer mining companies. She describes mega-long days of hard dirty work inter-spaced with bouts of euphoria when they hit the “pay dirt”. Placer miners get a cut of the gold. You get a pro-rated split of what you find. If you find nothing – that’s your split.

They ran a mini form of the No. 4 Dredge.

As they churned through the permafrost gravel with their their high powered hoses, she said that every now and then they would uncover the long buried carcass of a dead mastodon. The stench would be so bad that you could smell the rotting flesh for a while as you dug through the gravel before you were actually were able to exhume the elephant sized mass. She said it was a revolting job getting rid of it.

Thinking this was a stunning scientific opportunity, I asked her if they ever any attempted to preserve the remains or notify the authorities. And she laughed. There was no money in that. In fact the whole operation might be shut down if the authorities were notified while they took their sweet time doing their thing, so no one ever said anything. A mastodon find like that could cause them to lose the whole season. There was never any compensation for downtime. The government didn’t care what it cost the little guy.

She went on further to say that in the permafrost soil that was churned up, strange, beautiful erupted in the short summer heat of the north. Plants that she had never seen before. Plant seeds that had been frozen in time for millennia, now blossomed into strange enormous flowers that neither she nor anyone else on the crew had ever seen before – even though all of them had lived in the area for decades. But the flowers never got to full maturity because the age and climate had been much warmer when they were buried. And the cold quickly killed them.

She said that she had tried to save some of the soil where the seeds were buried, and even now had them wrapped in her freezer. She was planning to try growing them sometime in the future when she had time.

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it probably wouldn’t work. The cold of the freezer wouldn’t be equivalent to the permafrost cold. Here seeds were probably dead.

I wonder how many other Mastodons we’ve lost?

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Dawson City Cemeteries

Dawson City Pioneer Cemetery - alt view

Michel and I drove up the hill above Dawson City to do a self-tour through the Klondike pioneer cemeteries. The tourist information center hands out a brochure to help guide you.

In the 1800’s, society was very stratified. Your rank within the hierarchy was based on age, sex, employment, race, religion, family kinship and fraternal association. Just about anything you could think of would influence your position in society.

In our society, although there is stratification and social ranking – there has been strenuous efforts put out to mitigate it – with the result being that there is that are groupings are far larger;  ‘differences’ are more tolerated.

What I found absolutely fascinating was fineness of the granularity of their society. And how it was clearly displayed in the grave yards.

There were several cemeteries.

None of them very big.

There were cemeteries based on religion: Catholic, various Protestant brands or Jewish. You got an extra special cemetery if you officially belonged to a religious order – such as a nun.

There were cemeteries based on occupation: Police, or government official.

And there were cemeteries based on fraternity, such as the Y.O.O.P.; which stands for the Yukon Order of Old Pioneers. But ‘pioneers’ couldn’t be women, they had to be men. One woman spent quite some time fighting for admission on the basis that she’d been a pioneer too, but to no avail.

Within each cemetery there were further sub-groupings (and the break-outs were not, of course identical in each cemetery – it’s just what each group wanted to do). There was a section for very young children. Another cemetery had a section for “Catholic Natives.” But none of the Catholic native graves got names on their crosses. Just crosses. Some of the cemeteries had sections were the wealthier patrons were buried.  (They seemed to get the better view sections as well as the more impressive markers). For a while, there seemed to be a tradition of planting a tree on the grave – but again, this custom was only followed in one area.

When you walked through the graves, what really strikes you is that Dawson City was a one sex town. These graves are wall-to-wall men. And most of them seemed to have died young. Late teens to early twenties seemed to be a good age to go. If you were buried in your 40’s, you were definitely getting up there. There were a few people that passed in their late 60’s and 70’s but that’s getting to be a minority.

And they came from all over the world. Russia. Europe. South America. All kids, fresh from home – hoping to make it big.

The cemeteries have been largely reconstructed. Most of the crosses are not original, although enough still remain to give it a flavor.

When Dawson City’s population crashed from 40,000 to 1000, the town couldn’t keep up the graves, so they were left disintegrating until recently.

Most of the original grave markers were made out of tin, then artistically painted to look like stone. Stone monuments would have had to have been shipped from down south via the Yukon River and were prohibitively expensive.

One thing that we did notice as we walked through the cemeteries was that they were all completely covered in wild strawberries. It is the biggest most abundant crop I’ve ever seen in my entire life.


Dawson City Pioneer Cemetery

Dawson City Pioneer Cemetery

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Steamship Graveyard

Paddle wheel from graveyard beside Dawson City

Paddle wheel from graveyard beside Dawson City - Look at the size!

Across the river from Dawson City is a graveyard for steamship paddle wheelers.

The Klondike was serviced by various steamship operators, but by 1914 they had pretty well been amalgamated by the White Pass Company ( the same company that ran the railway) for a near total monopoly on public transport. At its zenith, the White Pass had 88 boats, and served over two thousand miles of lakes and rivers.

It’s monopoly was broken by the advent of the Alaska Highway and then that part of the business was completely collapsed by the construction of river bridges that the giant paddle wheelers couldn’t pass under.

To get to the graveyard, you have to catch a free public car ferry to the other side of the Yukon River. Drive about 50 feet up the road, and turn right into the Yukon River Campground. The park rangers manning the gates will give you detailed instructions – essentially drive to the end of the campground, then walk downstream along the Yukon River for a short distance.

The paddle wheelers are unmistakable.

What grand old ladies they are!

You can see that they were put into dry dock storage, several boats lined up into the forest. In their heyday they must have been magnificent.

The White Pass company was unable to sell their paddle wheelers because of their enormous size. The giant wheels and screws and various other hardware that made up the paddle wheelers guts were constructed down south, then conveyed into the Yukon by rail and water, then pieces which were then soldered together. They could never be taken apart again.

There has been no effort to preserve these grand old paddle wheelers, so they have completely collapsed. What does stand out is the size of the steamers and the paddle wheels themselves. They are a couple of stories high.

You can walk around the grounded steamships. The size of the boats are completely astonishing. It is unbelievable that ships of this size could actually navigate the river. You can see the grandeur of the bridge and breadth of the decks.

As you walk up the river’s edge toward the graveyard, you can see that some enterprising local has ‘recommissioned’ the odd bit of metal for his own purposes. I suspect that it isn’t legal, but it doesn’t seem to be a secret either.

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Dawson City, Yukon

Dawson City street

Dawson City street

There are three things that put Dawson City as a top destination on the tourist map.

  1. The Klondike Gold Rush.
  2. It served as the Capital of the Yukon from 1887 -1952.
  3. The sub-arctic climate that only gets about 90 frost free days a year – that preserves everything.

Dawson City was incorporated as a ‘city’ in 1902  during the Klondike Gold Rush when the population exploded from native fish camp to 40,000. Currently, the population is around 2,000 people.

Mini Factoid: Dawson City is only able to retain the word ‘city’ in its name through a special government provision.

Except for the main drag, and some of the redeveloped areas, Dawson City is a city frozen in time. The grand old buildings, the wooden shacks that the miners lived in, even the boardwalks have been preserved; either by permafrost or volunteers.

The first thing you notice as you look at the architecture is how much more work went into artistic detailing that is ever spent on modern buildings. And it is also amusing to note the large false facades on many of the buildings designed to make them look grander and bigger than they really were. And just like modern times, the front might look magnificent, but when you peer around the back, the building is made as cheap as possible!

Building with frost heaves in Dawson City, Yukon

Unrestored building with frost heaves in Dawson City, Yukon

Building on permafrost is very challenging. The layers of ice can thicken, change and heave over time. The buildings give off heat so that as the permafrost thaws, the building sinks and is damaged. The southern bred Klondikers didn’t have the building techniques in those days to deal with this, so while the wood and fixtures of the buildings is beautifully preserved by the freezing cold, the physical structure is at risk of collapsing because of the ‘heaves’. Parks Canada is responsible for rescuing many of these buildings.

Michel and I are now far enough north that it is almost continuous daylight. Those photos were taken at 11:00 at night! I can’t say enough good things about 24 hour sunshine! You can do whatever, whenever! It suits our lazy tourist mentality super well!

Animal snares in a general store in Dawson City

Animal snares in a general store in Dawson City

Inside the town general store we saw various sized snares for fox and wolverine, hanging beside the ski poles. Later that evening, we saw a crew-cab truck pull into the parking lot; the front packed with young first nations men whooping it up, the back piled high with caribou antlers – probably representing 40-50 animals.

Dawson City Church

Dawson City Church

Back in the Klondike days, people took their religion seriously. And the government via the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, enforced local religious morals. One poor guy got thrown in jail for chopping wood <gulp!> on Sunday!

Governer's house

Governor's house

Since Dawson City was the capital of the Yukon, all the various government entities were represented……..and the civil servants certainly got to live in style!

Sample shacks

Sample shacks

But the ordinary joe-blows, rough-necks and miners who EARNED the money got to live on this street.

Both Jack London (who wrote Call of the Wild) and Robert Service (who wrote The Cremation of Sam McGee) lived no more than 50 feet from each other in the same part of town.

Jack London's Cabin

Jack London's Cabin

Jack London's food cache

Jack London's food cache storage - to keep the bears out

Robert Service's cabin

Robert Service's cabin

Inside Robert Service cabin

Inside Robert Service's cabin

What is really impressive is how TINY everything is. The rooms are tiny, the doors are tiny, the windows are tiny. The beds are so small, it boggles the mind that anyone could fit in them, let alone get a good night’s sleep on them.

Dawson City Saloon

Merridith waving from the Red Feather Saloon

The city of Dawson has an ordinance that ensures that any modern development is in keeping with the era and flavor of the Klondike days. Here is Merridith waving goodbye from the porch of one of the modern drinking holes.

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